Black or White is offensive.
Not because of its patronizing view of race relations, not because of the horrible acting—although that is all there in spades. It’s offensively boring. Every minute of this movie felt like an hour. In the back of my head was one of those cartoon clocks going “tick… tick… tick… tick.” I feel like this movie is a horrible fountain of youth. You exit the theater feeling as if you’ve lived an entire lifetime in two hours. Not a good lifetime, a lifetime in a coma. But a long 98 years nonetheless.
The movie opens with Elliott (Kevin Costner) in a hospital. His wife has just died. Elliott’s friend and fellow lawyer Rick (Bill Burr) shows up.
Rick: “What happened?”
Elliott: “She’s gone.”
Rick: “So… what are you gonna do now?”
Elliott: “I dunno. Go home, I guess.”
Are you crying yet? You should be, because this is as poignant as this movie gets.
Elliott goes home, gets drunk, and passes out. In the morning, we hear an adorable voice at his bedroom door. Surprise! He has a grandchild, Eloise, and she’s BLACK. We know this because she looks black, and also she’s got a lot of hair. Black people hair. That Elliott doesn’t know how to comb. So he just embeds a brush in the hair and pulls as hard as he can as you hear the sound of her edges being ripped back to previous generations. He quickly gives up and just swats at her hair with the brush. Give the guy a break—sure, this little girl has lived with him her entire life since her mother died in childbirth, but this is black people hair we’re talking about. Nobody knows how it works.
You guys, for all that happens in the movie, this is the only part that tugged at my heartstrings. Because not once, not a single time in this movie that appears to span weeks, does anybody comb this poor child’s hair.
For the next hour, it’s just Kevin Costner wandering around with a tumbler full of Scotch looking like a kid doing an impression of a drunk grown-up. Elliott soon realizes that this parenting stuff is tricky, because he’s a lawyer, not a human. He decides to hire a tutor for Eloise. The tutor, Duvan (portrayed by Mpho Koaho), is African. With an African accent. We never find out where in Africa Duvan is from, but from his accent, I’m going to go with “Africa.” Duvan is a genius of all things and also a survivor of a nameless African conflict. Duvan follows Elliott around shoving academic papers in his face. That’s his thing, he just writes academic papers and tutors 7-year-old children all day. He serves absolutely no purpose in this movie, other than to be African and to drive Elliott around everywhere while he drowns in Scotch. (I’m sure that’s why he got a bazillion degrees, to drive a drunk white dude places.)
But this movie isn’t just about one man’s struggle with a black child’s hair. Eloise has another, non-dead grandma. A black grandma, named Grandma Wiwi (Octavia Spencer). And she wants to see her grandchild.
Almost immediately, Grandma Wiwi is all, “I’m taking you to court to get custody” (nobody explains how this escalates so fast). “And my brother’s a lawyer, and he has a team of the most attractive brown lawyers you’ve ever seen.”
Then Elliott’s all, “Oh yeah? Well I’m a lawyer. And my team of old, slightly racist, sweaty white dudes is going to sit in our offices and figure out a way to beat you in court without having to say the word ‘black.’”
Elliott’s lawyer buddies are pretty terrified of black people. But a good friend like Rick will still ask the tough questions.
“I’m not being a dick, but do you want a black kid?”
Elliott: “SHE’S NOT BLACK.”
This is a running theme of the movie. Elliott is terrified of the word “black.” Every time anybody says it, especially Grandma Wiwi, who appears to love shouting it at him every five minutes, Elliott screams in terror. This is the only part of the movie that feels real to me.
They take their battle to court. Eloise’s father, Reggie, a crack addict, shows up out of the blue. He wants money for crack. He says he’s clean now, but he’ll sell Eloise to Elliott for cash. Elliott says, “No, you’re going to come to dinner.” Reggie says yes but never shows.
Grandma Wiwi shows up at Elliott’s house the next day with 42 of her closest black friends and family to go swimming in Elliott’s pool. You know black people, always randomly appearing in dozens to swim in your pool uninvited. I feel like this is the scene where the writers really wanted to break stereotypes.
Then Elliott calls Reggie a “street nigger.” Yep.
Elliott starts to think that maybe he has a problem. He says to Duvan, “I’m ready to learn a new language.” Duvan nods like the wise, magical African that he is.
The new language is a metaphor.
Grandma Wiwi decides that an even better idea than suing for custody would be if Reggie (who is literally sweating crack residue through his shirt) sues for custody. Reggie is like, “Ugh, do I have to?”
Now, with drug- and stereotype-filled Reggie fighting for sole custody of the kid he doesn’t want, you’d think this would be a slam dunk for Elliott. But it’s not, because Elliott is highly unlikable and this movie is highly unrealistic. Also Elliott is 98 percent booze. Still, the fact that Reggie apparently has done all the crimes and all the drugs makes the judge a bit skeptical of his readiness to care for a child. But Jeremiah, top lawyer that he is, has that race card, remember?
“Is it true you called Reggie a street nigger?”
Everyone stares at Elliott with a line-face emoji. Elliott fesses up to the awful slur, but he’s got a defense: He’s one of the few white people who do see color. Do you know what else he sees? Boobs. This is important because when we realize that race is just like boobs, we’ll understand that racism doesn’t really exist. I wish I was making this up. This is the teaching moment of the movie. But the judge (who is, according to one of Elliott’s lawyers, “a black lady judge”) isn’t buying the race = boobs defense. Elliott’s chances at continuing to fall down drunk in front of his granddaughter seem to be slipping away.
But Elliott has one more trick up his sleeve. His lawyer goes up to cross-examine Reggie, and he has only one question: “Can you spell your daughter’s name?”
Reggie looks terrified, because he’s just realized what we already know: He’s the living embodiment of the young black boy in the ghetto that Elvis was singing about. In the ghettoooooo…
“L… O… E… Z. Eloise.”
Boom. It’s over. Reggie spells like a 2-year-old. He hangs his head in shame. Court adjourned.
Angry at being exposed as every white father’s worst fear, Reggie smokes more crack and then attacks Elliott. Elliott almost dies; nobody watching this movie cares. Reggie saves Elliott, because the writers need a way to put a bow on this. The next day, they all show up in court and Reggie’s like:
“Never mind, I am a crackhead. I would make a horrible father.”
Then Elliott is all, “Water under the bridge, man.”
Then Grandma Wiwi declares: “Never mind, Elliott’s an awesome grandfather. He can totally keep Eloise. Also, he’s an alcoholic.”
Elliott replies, “Man, I sure am an alcoholic. Mind your own business, Wiwi!”
The judge says, “Gavel, gavel. You’ve all just wasted my time. Get the fuck out of my courthouse.”
This movie is two hours of black people walking up to white people and yelling “BLACK” and white people yelling “WHY YOU GOTTA MAKE IT ABOUT RACE” over and over again. In this movie, most young black men are the thugs you fear. But if you are a benevolent drunk white dude, you can see past that and understand that every violent crack-smoking black man is really just a sad kid who never learned how to read. White men who yell “street nigger” aren’t really racist, they just love boobs. And if we all just beat the living shit out of each other, we’ll realize that fighting is dumb, black men make horrible parents, and old drunk white dudes really are our best option.